Candidate Barack Obama promised education would be a priority of his administration, and since taking office he has funneled $1.8 billion in federal stimulus money to Maryland schools to help avoid layoffs and program cuts.
But now he faces a thornier problem: How to fix the federal No Child Left Behind law, which critics say focuses too much on punishing failing schools instead of providing the support they need to succeed.
Last week, the outlines of Mr. Obama's plan began to emerge. Using the education stimulus as a carrot, the president wants state governors to sign off on four "assurances" that the money will be used to create an infrastructure for a new education model that states can use long after the temporary federal dollars run out.
Those assurances include improving the quality of standardized tests and raising standards; making sure effective teachers are assigned equitably to all students, whether from rich or poor districts; fixing failing schools; and building data systems that track students throughout their academic careers. To encourage states to develop innovative initiatives to meet these goals, Education Secretary Arne Duncan will control a $5 billion "race to the top" fund to reward successful programs.
Clearly the administration is asking states to think outside the box in terms of preparing students for college and work. It also seems likely that some kinds of national standards are in the offing that would give the federal government more say over curriculum and other matters. Given the way things are headed, Baltimore's schools are likely to provide an early test of whether the new approach works.
Baltimore schools chief Andres Alonso says the city already has started work on the administration's ideas. It's been aggressively closing failing schools, expanding successful ones and opening charter and transformation schools that offer a better learning environment than those they replace. It's looking hard at teacher effectiveness and working with the teachers union to develop new evaluation standards. And Mr. Alonso plans to apply for "race to the top" reward funds to create a database that tracks the performance of individual students and their teachers.
As far as improving standardized tests and raising standards, that's a job for the state; the city can't do it alone. What it can do is urge educators to rethink the purposes and goals of testing and redirect the conversation away from emphasizing minimal competence in reading and math and toward measuring what students really need to know and be able to do in an increasingly competitive global economy. That would really be change we can believe in.